Americans cheered the exploits of a diminutive Tennessean who carried the banner of “Manifest Destiny” during the momentous 1850’s. Born in Nashville (1824), educated in law and medicine, William Walker preferred journalism as an outlet for his liberal sentiments. In New Orleans, writing for the Crescent in the late forties, the young intellectual annoyed many Southerners with his opposition to the extension of slavery and to filibustering. With the demise of that newspaper and the unfortunate death of his deaf-mute lady fair, the crusading editor headed west to California where again he took up the pen to expose crime and venality, especially in the judicial system of that infant state. Finally, in 1853, Walker began his career as a filibuster; his forays into Baja California and Sonora were dismal failures which nonetheless focused attention upon him. In 1855, and despite the Neutrality Laws, Walker and his “Immortals” landed in Central America, allegedly to fight for the cause of liberalism. In the following year, the “grey-eyed man of destiny”—the Indians believed that he was their legendary redeemer—was elected President of Nicaragua. But within a year’s time, President Walker was ousted; he lost his support among Central Americans, antagonized the conservative opposition, and aroused the powerful enmity of that irascible “Commodore,” Cornelius Vanderbilt. The rest was anti-climax. Despite a warm reception in the United States, the ex-president was no longer able to participate in Central American politics because of the enforcement of the neutrality legislation and the vigilance of the American Navy. When Walker and a small group of followers reached Honduras successfully in 1860, he was immediately apprehended and put to death by a firing squad. Thus ended the career of one of the most popular and controversial men of the ante-bellum period.
The tragic-miened Tennessean had much in common with another famous knight-errant, the Manchegan hero of Miguel de Cervantes. In 1848 Walker delivered a speech in Nashville entitled “The Unity of Art,” in which he urged his audience to cultivate the arts and matters of the spirit—a plea for idealism which revealed the “directional thrust to his life’s trajectory.” “He had already begun,” Mr. Carr avers, “to formulate the principles of heroic conduct by which he tried to live; from the ideal of Galahad to the ideal of Byron was a natural evolution for him” (p. 26). His Calvinistic upbringing, moreover, gave his character an ascetic bent; and the author tells us that the “psychological root” of Walker’s tremendous energy was perhaps due to sexual abstinence: “His maleness found its outlet in an assault, as it were, upon the political timidities of his environment” (p. 74). This image or interpretation of William Walker is the one which is projected vividly, imaginatively, and artistically in this book by a talented writer.
But this is not history; nor does Mr. Carr’s presentation add substantially to the classic study by William O. Scroggs, Filibusters and Financiers: The Story of William Walker and His Associates (New York, 1916). Guided by the stereotype outlined above, the author offers facile explanations for controversial aspects of Walker’s career without throwing any new light actually upon that enigmatic figure. Rationalizations are taken uncritically for motives, and too much is inferred from the known facts. The explanations fall neatly into place, even though they twist the historical context. And the resort to contrasts—the hero Walker versus such villains as Cornelius Vanderbilt and James Buchanan, for example—is simply not good scholarship. Also, Mr. Carr could have been more critical of his sources, especially newspapers of the period. It is one thing to say that public opinion in the United States believed that James Buchanan was a tool of the English and that the British were conspiring to seize Central America but quite another thing to state, and especially to prove, that it was true. Anglo-American diplomatic relations, as presented in this book, are garbled and distorted. The discussion of Central American political developments, moreover, is superficial and unconvincing—for example, the explanation of Walker’s break with the unionist liberals. Finally, the bibliography should have included the books by Mary W. Williams, Ira D. Travis, and Edward S. Wallace.
In short, Mr. Carr’s work deserves accolades for its artistic qualities, not for its pretensions to historical scholarship.